In this interview
On marrying her wife
On taking her books in a new direction
On the influence of her childhood
Patricia Cornwell: ‘Finally, I feel rooted somewhere’
Last Updated: 1:18PM GMT 05 Dec 2007
Patricia Cornwell: “I had been taught that homosexuals would go to hell”
In her first British interview since ‘marrying’ her female partner, Patricia Cornwell explains why she kept quiet about her sexuality for years – and how her new life is transforming her forensically gory novels. Cassandra Jardine reports
Patricia Cornwell is cloaked in security to an extraordinary extent, even by American standards. She may need it at book signings in the States, where weirdos with guns and knives have turned up to meet the crime writer whose graphic descriptions of gouged flesh have made her the best-selling female writer in the world after JK Rowling, but it’s strange to encounter this level of caution in a London hotel.
In the lift, I’m accompanied by a spookily silent man in a suit – what’s that bulge under his jacket? – and on either side of the door to her suite, two further stooges stand sentry. When admitted to the inner sanctum, I find a small woman with spiky hair, who tells me she employs undercover security, too, presumably wandering around the lobby.
“It’s not about fear,” she says in a voice that combines briskness with the drawl of her Southern childhood.
“I won’t put myself in a position where I’m vulnerable.”
It takes me a while to discover what she means by that, because it’s tempting to assume that Cornwell is as hard-boiled as the characters in her Kay Scarpetta books, the 15th of which has just been published.
Dr Scarpetta is a forensic pathologist who investigates the most grisly of murders. Fearless and detached, some reviewers have called her a “tough broad” – but that makes her creator angry.
“Scarpetta is an elegant intellectual with great depths of feeling which you don’t always see,” she says.
Since Cornwell admits to being very like Scarpetta – with touches of the character’s switched-on young niece Lucy thrown in – it suggests hidden depths to a writer who can also appear steel-plated.
She started her career as a crime reporter, before moving on to work in the medical examiner’s office in Richmond, Virginia, and is as familiar with morgues as others are with supermarkets.
She flies helicopters, rides motorbikes and is terrier-like with her causes. Several years ago she set out to prove that the British Impressionist painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper, and she is still on the case.
“The Sickert Trust had better watch out,” she warns tantalisingly, “when copyright expires on his letters in 2012.”
As for the cyber-stalker whom she recently successfully sued, she hisses: “I haven’t finished with him yet.”
Perhaps she has needed to act fierce. She’s so tiny that her high-heeled patent biker boots scarcely reach the ground from the hotel sofa. As a young tennis player, she tells me, “I had to play with the boys as there was no girls’ team, and they kept hitting balls right at me.”
When she started writing in 1990, she admits that she felt insecure.
“I had a lot to prove and probably a lot of anger and fear from my childhood. But I’m 51 now and not the same person.”
She’s warmer and friendlier than I expected – but perhaps this is a new development, just as it is in Kay Scarpetta’s fictional life. This latest book has taken two years instead of the usual one to produce, partly because of a leaky roof at Cornwell’s home in Boston, but largely because she wanted to change direction.
“An old college friend told my ex-husband Charlie – who’s my editor – that he wasn’t sure he liked my main characters. I thought, ‘You know what? I don’t either.’ I realised that the later books lacked the warm element of character interaction.”
It is too much of a coincidence that, in the past two years, she has developed a domestic life herself.
Her latest Scarpetta novel, Book of the Dead, is dedicated to “Dr Staci Gruber, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, and Associate Director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory, McLean Hospital”.
Dr Gruber’s professional expertise is evident in the book’s scientific detail, but the relationship is more than professional. In February 2005, the two women were joined in a same-sex marriage, newly permitted in the state of Massachusetts.
Until now, Cornwell has refused to speak up for gay women. When I ask her to confirm the marriage, she replies only: “Yep.” But when I ask what difference it has made to her, she pauses for a moment, then opens up about her personal life in a way she never has before.
“It has made a difference in two ways,” she says.
“Like Scarpetta, I finally feel rooted somewhere. I feel a sense of responsibility and stability that I didn’t have before. I hadn’t been in a long-term relationship since I got divorced in 1988 and it’s hard to live that way. Being with someone who is smart and gives good advice adds tremendously wonderful elements to your life.
“What happened was that I went to Harvard to research neuroscience and was directed to meet with Dr Gruber because she’s so eminently respected. It was one of those things: you meet someone when you’re not looking. I’ve never been a soapbox person for gay rights, but now I’m in a same-sex marriage I tend to be more open, because I am outraged that it should be illegal in other states.”
“If we were outside of Massachusetts and Staci were in a horrible car wreck, a hospital could forbid me from seeing her. The federal government does not honour same-sex marriage, so couples can’t file joint tax returns and, in terms of death benefits, people have to go to extraordinary lengths with lawyers to try to make sure that their partner isn’t evicted from the home.”
There is a movement, she says, to change the American constitution to ban same-sex unions. Its supporters say that if marriage is allowed between homosexuals, unions between people and animals will be next.
“Marry your dog – what kind of insanity is that? I don’t do things that are illegal. I pay my taxes, I give millions to charity, so why am I less than other people? This comes from the far-Right, conservative Christians who spew forth all these rigid ‘thou shalt nots’.”
Cornwell understands those people because she was brought up among them. When she was five, her father, a lawyer, walked out on Christmas Day in 1961, ignoring her attempts to cling to his leg.
“When I was in second grade, my mother moved from Miami to this evangelical conservative environment in western North Carolina, two miles down the road from Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth. I was the only child of divorced parents in my entire school. We were made to feel like sinners coming from a broken home. I felt isolated.”
Matters got worse when her mother succumbed to depression and the young Patsy Daniels, as Cornwell was then known, was fostered by an unkind woman who wouldn’t let her keep her beloved dog with her.
In those days, she didn’t realise that she had homosexual proclivities because she had never even heard that women could be gay.
“I knew something wasn’t right in high school because boys would ask me out and I didn’t feel the same way about them as other girls. But it was only at college that I saw women who were gay.”
While studying English at Davidson College in North Carolina, and just as she started analysing her own feelings, she “honestly fell in love” with her male professor, Charlie Cornwell, who was 17 years her senior.
After 10 years together, Cornwell divorced him. In 1990, she published her first mystery novel, Postmortem.
“It was only afterwards that I had my first gay encounter, which was completely accidental: I became close friends with someone and it progressed. Then I realised ‘Uh-oh…’, but I kept on dating men, hoping that I just hadn’t met the right one, because I didn’t want it to be true.”
“It flew in the face of my upbringing: I had been taught that homosexuals would go to hell because they were perverts. And I didn’t want people talking about me and calling me names. It’s no fun to worry about holding hands in a public place and that some redneck is going to follow you in a pick-up truck and show you what it’s like to be with a man.”
She kept her lesbian relationships secret for some years, until outed by two people who she believes were jealous of her success.
“My mother, God bless her, said ‘You’ve disgraced our family’, though now she’s fine about it.”
Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, who had encouraged Cornwell to write, was far more understanding.
“I flew to see her, saying there would be things in the news. She just said, ‘So, honey, what else have you been doing?’?”
Most sensational of the “things in the news” were the reports of the trial in 1997 of Eugene Bennett, a former FBI agent who attempted to murder his wife after her affair with Cornwell. After all that, you’d think the writer would be relieved to be openly married. Not entirely.
“I live in a society where, when I’m invited as guest of honour, I’m not asked if I want to bring my partner. At dinner parties, you feel half the people round the table hate gays. Wherever you go, you know people are talking about you – it would be so different if I were to turn up with a big, strapping husband. But I figure that, if I’m honest about it, perhaps society will change.”
In America at present, she doesn’t see much prospect of that, so she keeps her security tight and tries to concentrate on the forensic science, intricate plots and sassy characters that have sold millions of books. Kay Scarpetta is in many ways how she would like to be: more “intelligent” and less “volatile”.
No doubt it is therapeutic for Cornwell to assume the tougher skin of her leading lady, but writing the books is emotionally gruelling. Recently, in a morgue, she saw the corpse of a child who had been starved.
“I started crying. I thought, ‘How can anyone do that? Especially when his sister was well-fed.’” During the writing of the book, a bird flew into her window pane – and she cried for two days over its injuries.
Such softer feelings are seeping into her books.
“In the next one, Kay will have a stable relationship,” she reveals. “It’s time for her to have a home, a garden and feelings.”
After that, who knows? Soon, she could be baking apple pie.
Patricia Cornwell’s extraordinary life
The imaginative roots of Patricia Cornwell’s bestselling thrillers lie in her own gothic life. With The Times serialising her new novel, The Front, over the next two weeks, she talks to Janice Turner about looking on the dark side